Italy rescues 900 amid migrant surge in the Mediterranean
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Italian authorities said Saturday that more than 900 people had been rescued at sea in 24 hours, in a blow to hopes that the approach of winter would stem the flow of migrants attempting perilous crossings of the Mediterranean.
Most of the rescued were picked up from boats in the channel between Libya and Sicily, a narrow but treacherous strait in which thousands have drowned in recent years trying to reach Europe.
A total of 477 migrants were delivered to Porto Empedocle on Sicily's southern coast by Panamanian tanker the Gaz Concord. A further 354 were due to be brought ashore by an Italian navy patrol boat at nearby Pozzallo later in the day.
The coastguard also intercepted a yacht with 80 would-be migrants on board off the port of Crotone on the southeastern "heel" of the Italian mainland.
The overcrowded leisure vessel had spent six days sailing from Turkey, was travelling under a fake Italian ensign and had children on board, four of whom were hospitalised after disembarking.
Police arrested the skipper on suspicion of people smuggling.
The interception of the yacht follows the November 3 sinking in the Black Sea of an overcrowded leisure cruiser that had left Turkey bound for Romania.
At least 24 of the 43 people on board that 13-person boat died. According to refugee bodies, more than 3,300 people have died this year in bids to reach Europe's southern shores.
The Gaz Concord picked up its human cargo on Friday after being alerted that a ship was in distress by the Italian coastguard from its operations centre in Rome.
The migrants, mostly from Syria or sub-Saharan Africa, included 20 children and were all said to be in good health.
The coastguard said that 230 migrants had been rescued from two other vessels on Friday by Greek oil tanker the Byzantion. It was not immediately clear if they were part of, or in addition to, the group due to be deposited in Sicily by the navy.
The landings came two weeks after Italy ended its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation after its European Union partners refused to help fund it.
Mare Nostrum was responsible for bringing some 150,000 migrants to shore in its year of operation.
Critics said it encouraged migrants to risk everything to get to Europe and made the job of people smugglers easier.
Tales abound of traffickers steering ships into mid-ocean before abandoning them, leaving the passengers with mobile or satellite phones and the contact number of the Italian coastguard, but it is unclear how widespread this practice is.
Italy says Mare Nostrum, launched after two October 2013 sinkings off the island of Lampedusa left more than 400 dead, was costing it nine million euros ($11 million) a month.
It has been replaced by an EU-run operation known as Triton whose mandate is limited to patrolling waters within 30 nautical miles of the bloc's coastline.
Organisations including Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency UNHCR have warned this will lead to more deaths.
They dispute the argument that rescue operations increase the "pull factor" drawing migrants to Europe, arguing that the growing numbers and rising proportions of children, women and disabled people, reflect a surge in refugee numbers due to conflicts like Syria/Iraq.
Rights bodies have urged EU governments to respond with a coordinated plan to absorb far more refugees than they have so far.
But there is little appetite for this with anti-immigration parties on the rise across much of Europe.
In Italy, the latest sea rescues followed days of attacks on a refugee holding centre in Rome by mobs of local residents who maintain that their rundown suburb does not benefit from the public largesse supposedly reserved for immigrants.
Some of the asylum-seekers under siege arrived in Italy on Mare Nostrum boats after long overland journeys from countries including Afghanistan, Eritrea and Pakistan.
City authorities were forced to temporarily evacuate minors from the centre earlier this week for their own safety.
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